7% better – The 200 words project

Here’s this week’s 200 word idea from our RealLeaders.tv interview with Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi..

Social scientist and author of the now legendary book on happiness – “Flow,” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and team spent a week collecting data from a group of internet chess players who played over 1000 games.

They had the players fill out how much “flow” they felt in the game afterwards. All previous psychological theories spoke about play as a way of boosting self esteem by winning. But, Prof Mihaly and team’s hypothesis was that greatest enjoyment doesn’t come from winning but from playing opponents who are equally matched – so skill levels and challenges are equal (i.e. in “flow” territory).

Source and thanks to: 

Interestingly, the results showed that the optimal challenge was when the opponent was about 7% better. Playing against better players meant the curve of enjoyment went down very slowly while playing against really bad players meant enjoyment went down precipitously. The point is clearly not to just win because, when we play against someone better, we win only 30% of the time but when we do win, we feel much better.

Are we regularly giving ourselves challenges that are 7% harder than our current skill level?

“Happiness is not something that is guaranteed, or that comes with our birth certificates. Happiness is to do things that are harmonious with who we are, with what we can do, with what we like, and with what we think is right.” | Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi 

What should I do if I’m really struggling at work and feel incredibly down because of it?

Someone (anonymous) prompted me to answer a question on Quora. I thought I’d share the question and my response below. The tough part about such a question is that no one can answer it. The best (I believe) you can do is provide a frame that will hopefully help. The response has many of elements I write about here on this blog and all of what is recommended has been tried and tested. So, here’s hoping this helps the person who asked the question and anyone else who might be having a difficult time.

What should I do if I’m really struggling at work and feel incredibly down because of it?

I changed job about a year ago, and really haven’t been doing well in my new job, definitely not as well as I did in my old. Some things are solvable, or at least I can see how to solve them, e.g. project management. However, my job is very technical and requires a deep understanding of material that is complex. I cannot seem to get my head around it, my learning on it is very slow. For that I just do not know what to do, and feel hopeless. It is strange for me because my technical grasp in my old job was good, I don’t know why I am struggling so much here. I feel so demotivated and I do not know who to talk to, as people who do not work in the industry do not understand. I really want some constructive feedback and something concrete to work on, but my colleagues and management say “understanding technical issues should be a given” which makes me wish I could just quit and do something else, although I can’t actually afford to do that financially.


Dear friend,

Congratulations! This is an opportunity that can make you and really change your life.

What you describe is the essence of the toughest struggle we face as humans – it is part external, part internal and part existential. It is when the resistance seems to just overpower you and suddenly everything that you seem to touch seems to have failure written all over it. There is nothing harder. I have experienced losing both my father and uncle between ages 9 and 11 and then facing many difficulties as a consequence of that. And, yet, when I look back at a time when I went through something like this, I found death and it’s consequences easier to deal with. This sort of experience will teach you to be human and, in many ways, I think it’s those that learn to be human are those that learn how to be happy.

The toughest part about this sort of situation is that it comes with a seeming lack of options. You seem stuck in an endless spiral and rebuilding your confidence and your sense of self feel like a lot of hard work.

So, given the situation, it is great that you are asking the question. It is sometimes hard to step out of ourselves when we are having tough times. And, this is definitely a good first step. Well done.

Here’s how I would approach it.

Step 1. Examine your options and make a conscious decision.

It seems to me that there are 4 options –
1. Quit now (which you can’t seem to afford financially)
2. Search for a job now
3. Stay and continue status quo
4. Stay and change things

Out of these 4 options, I think searching for a job now could be an escape. However, given your current mental state, it is unlikely that is going to be fruitful. Since option 3 is not one I would recommend, let’s focus on the decision you have in front of you – To fix it or not to  try.

If you decide to fix it, then we proceed to step 2.

Step 2. Rebuild with a 1 month short term plan.

Give yourself a clear short term process goal, e.g., “I’m going to work hard on “being happy” and I’m going to measure my efforts on it.”

This will take 3 steps – 

1. Get the basics – eating, sleeping, exercising, and reading – right. Eat healthy food every 4 hours, kill alcohol and cigarettes for a month, sleep 8 hours every day, exercise 6 days a week (aerobic for 20 minutes) and spend 30 mins every day reading/listening to a book (perhaps start with your commute). When you start,  start with “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor E Frankl.

Create a simple tracker and measure yourself on these.

2. Journal your daily learnings. You are learning something every day. Reflect on it and write about it. Every challenge is learning and every day, we get better at dealing with them.

3. Recharge emotionally – via good times and volunteering. Spend at least a day a week with loved ones and get over yourself when you do (no moping / complaining). And, make 3 hours to volunteer at a place with underprivileged kids.

– This may not immediately change anything. You’re in a spiral, and as you face the inevitable frustration once you start trying, you’ll probably spiral further down. Allow yourself to hit rock bottom. It’s a liberating place to be when you realize you can’t sink any lower.
– Don’t take it personally – great footballing stars have gone on to become massive failures when they switched clubs. It isn’t just about you – it is also about the environment.
– As you might have gathered, this isn’t about the technical skills. Our first step is to work on your confidence and motivation. • Be willing to iterate and change approaches. This will help you with stage 1 – getting started and building your confidence. You’ll need to keep tailoring your approach as  some things will work and some won’t. That’s okay. It’s a long way up and there is no easy way out of it.

And, this is not going to be easy or quick. You will feel stuck and annoyed many many times as you work your way through the process. If that happens, welcome to the club. This is how we get made.

PS: I’d love to help beyond this Quora thread. If this thought process helps, that’s great. Even if it doesn’t, please feel free to write me on rohan@rohanrajiv.com if I can be of help in thinking through this. Good luck and good skill!

Escaping hard work

A good career takes hard work.

A good relationship takes more hard work.

A good life and happiness takes some more hard work.

Why, even a great vacation requires a lot of hard work.

True happiness and hard work come together. We can never stop working hard if we want to live good lives. We just shift the focus of our hard work from our careers to our families to our personal projects and so on. The challenges only get harder and never ever stop. But, on the upside, once we learn to work hard, we also learn to prioritize better, focus harder and bring more of ourselves to our lives.

So, we’re left with two choices – attempt to find the short cuts and escape the work or embrace the hard work totally, live well, and bring more of ourselves to the world.

We’re successful when we stop seeing the first choice and we’re happy when we embrace the second.

The anxiety will be forgotten

Think back to your best 3 memories in the last 10 years. If you’ve put together a mental picture of the most memorable times you’ve had, my question for you is – what was the anxiety of the moment then?

You and I know there was one. It took a bit of thinking for me to remember what might have been the anxiety of the moment. For instance, in my final year of university, I was worried about my first job and I was worried about another big rock a couple of years later.

We always have a significant cause to be anxious about. Anxiety is a powerful tool used by the resistance to stop us from being our best self. If we give it too much importance, it can destroy our ability to focus on the present – one of the most important contributors to our happiness. And, today’s post is just a reminder to be present, smile, focus, and enjoy the day for what it is.

The challenges will never stop. The struggles will always make their way into our lives. Embrace them. The fact that they are around means all is normal in the world.

As you know, these anxieties will be forgotten. Our most memorable moments were not worry free. But they were fun, learning-filled, joyous, and meaningful.

They were all those things because we were present and made them so. Let’s remember to continue to do that.